Reaching out to neglected black voters has almost become a ritual at Republican gatherings in recent years. But it has gained new importance for GOP officeholders as they watch a Republican administration repeatedly take steps that could draw a big black vote - for the opposition.
It is not surprising that resolutions addressed to blacks and other disadvantaged citizens were passed at the Republicans' annual Tidewater Conference in Maryland a few days ago. Administration figures themselves have been redeclaring their devotion to protectingcivil rights and meet the needs of the disadvantaged.
They have to dispel the impression left by the administration in such ways as seeking tax exemptions for segregationist schools, favoring the weaker alternative in extending the Voting Rights Act, cutting economic programs of particular concern to minorities, and making such questionable appointments to civil rights posts that two have been rescinded, while confirmation of another has been held up for an FBI investigation.
Party stalwart Bill Brock was at the Tidewater meeting, and he must have been glad to see resolutions reasserting Republican commitment to ''maintaining necessary assistance to those in short-term need as we encourage their upward mobility.'' For Mr. Brock took a strong initiative a few years ago toward making the GOP competitive with the Democrats in appealing to black voters.
Perhaps the time is ripe for competition again. Shortly before the Tidewater Conference the Democratic black mayor of Tuskegee, Alabama, Johnny Ford, told a Harvard University audience that neither party has met the needs of the poor, the elderly, and the sick. ''We are tired of the Democratic Party taking us for granted,'' he said. ''and we're tired of the Republican Party ignoring us.'' He called on black Republicans and Democrats to rise above party differences for the larger good. Then he in effect challenged the two parties to compete in serving black needs and winning black votes.
''We have to play politics just like the white folks,'' he said. ''White folks never lose, no matter who's in office. We must say that we as a people have no permanent friends and no permanent enemies, just permanent interests.''
One problem at the moment is that black citizens do not have the strong economic and political lobbying groups to represent their interests and make the system work for them. The Black Congressional Caucus takes on this function to some extent.
Suppose the two major parties were actively lobbying for black interests. Suppose they were actively competing to solve black problems. This might not only bring more votes to the Republicans, if their programs become more effective than the Democrats'. But the very competition might signal that the whole society was now agreed on the need for solutions. And thus the problems themselves could be farther along toward solution.
This long view is taken by Dianne Pinderhughes, on sabbatical as an associate professor of government at Dartmouth, who also spoke at Harvard. She wonders whether the GOP is prepared to compete when it comes to specific policies utilizing the governmental role most black Americans see as essential for ensuring political and economic rights. In this view the private sector cannot do it all.
Creative mixtures are needed. The Tidewater Conference suggested Republicans know that they ought to be in the competition. Let it begin.